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A Taiwanese vessel docked in South Africa recently became the first to ever be detained under a new UN convention preventing labor abuse at sea. In Taipei, advocates are fed up.

Fishery Protests Kick Off Human Trafficking Prevention Conference

2018/07/25 , News
Nick Aspinwall
Photo Credit: EJF
Nick Aspinwall
Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large for The News Lens. He has also written for The Diplomat and News Deeply. When he’s not reporting, he can be found on a diving boat or perhaps stranded deep within a remote mountain range.

Demonstrators gathered outside the Civil Service Development Institute in Taipei this morning to usher in the 2018 International Workshop to Combat Human Trafficking.

Organized by the Ministry of the Interior (MoI), the event highlights Taiwan's ongoing commitment to stop forced labor, but the event's roster of legislators and speakers will have to tend to a persistent thorn in their side: labor abuse of migrant workers in the fishing industry.

Taiwan's maligned distant water fleet made the news for all the wrong reasons last week, when its vessel Fuh Sheng No. 11 became the first ship ever detained for violating the International Labour Organization (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention (also known as C188). South African authorities apprehended and inspected the vessel at port in Cape Town following complaints from the crew about poor work and living conditions.

In an ILO news release, South African inspector Thelma Paul reported a list of glaring problems, including poor safety and health conditions, inadequate food and accommodation, and missing documentation. "Only two of the crew members had work agreements," she said. Crew members also complained about poor working conditions, and some said they wanted to leave the vessel.

ILO
Photo Credit: ILO
Taiwanese vessel Fuh Sheng No. 11, detained by South African authorities for violating the ILO Work in Fishing Convention.

The ship was cleared to sail and left Cape Town on June 27 at 12 p.m. local time, according to Biblia, a South African NGO. Biblia also shared a letter from a crew member, which said the ship was unsafe and had no life jackets or life boats. The letter's author also said he was concerned about the quality of food, as he was frequently sick.

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Photo Credit: Biblia
A letter given to South African NGO Biblia by a crew member aboard Taiwanese vessel Fuh Sheng No. 11.

This incident, according to a press release by the NGO coalition "Human Rights for Migrant Fishers," highlights the need for Taiwan to ratify the Work in Fishing Convention. To date, 10 countries have ratified the Work in Fishing Convention, including South Africa. Fellow fishing titan Thailand is in the process of implementing the new standards.

"There is still a significant gap between Taiwan's regulation and international standards," said Max Schmid, Deputy Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). "The Taiwan government must urgently ratify international conventions, including the Work in Fishing Convention."

Schmid told The News Lens he will present a gap analysis tomorrow at the conference, showing the separation between the ILO's fishing labor standards and Taiwan's, reinforced in 2017 by the Distant Water Fisheries Act.

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Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall
NGO representatives demonstrate outside the 2018 International Workshop to Combat Human Trafficking, July 25, 2018.

The NGO coalition demonstrated ahead of the opening of this morning's conference. Representatives from Greenpeace, EJF, and the Taiwan International Worker's Association (TIWA) spoke, as did Allison Lee (李麗華) of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union (YMFU) and Lennon Ying-dah Wong (汪英達) of Serve the People Association (SPA). Police ushered 50 or so demonstrators and journalists away from the building's entrance after about a half hour, when speakers at the conference began to arrive.

The coalition commissioned a large truck to display videos released by EJF and Greenpeace detailing abuse and deplorable working conditions. The truck was asked to move away from the building after parking next to the demonstration, but is traversing Taipei today displaying the videos.

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Photo Credit: EJF
A truck displaying videos showing abuse in Taiwan's distant water fishing fleet, which will drive around Taipei for about eight hours today.

The videos were released in conjunction with reports in March (EJF) and May (Greenpeace) which pinpointed human trafficking violations within Taiwan's distant water fleet. A May report by The News Lens revealed additional cases in which fishermen who died at sea were thrown overboard – a practice permitted by vaguely worded language in their contracts.

Taiwan has been a "Tier 1" country in the U.S. Department of State's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for nine consecutive years, indicating that it is not negligent in its duty to combat human trafficking. However, Lee told The News Lens she was not optimistic about Taiwan's commitment to stamping out modern slavery in its fishing fleet.

"In 2014, the TIP report showed concern with abuse aboard distant water vessels. In 2018, it showed the same problem," said Lee. "Nothing has changed. It's still the same situation."

In May, the NGO coalition met with government officials, including representatives of the Fisheries Agency (FA), Taiwan's high seas regulatory body. Wong told The News Lens at the time that he felt optimistic, but today, he struck a discordant tone. When asked today if he had seen any progress, he said: "No. None. Not at all."

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Photo Credit: EJF
Lennon Ying-dah Wong of Serve the People Association speaks outside the 2018 International Workshop to Combat Human Trafficking in Taipei, July 25, 2018.

"The government hasn't responded to any of our demands," he said. "The FA has said they've done everything they can."

Wong said there is a follow-up meeting scheduled for next week, but he is not yet sure who will attend. Looking back, he says, he believes the FA was aware of the detention of Fuh Sheng 11 at the time of their last meeting. It leads him to worry that the FA is not taking the concerns of the coalition seriously.

"The FA has become a propaganda office for the fishing companies," he said, echoing Greenpeace allegations that the agency serves industry interests. "What they're doing is the same: cheating, blocking information, offering propaganda ... I'm not really optimistic."

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